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Facing Palin factor, Romney mulls political future

Glen Johnson

Tagg Romney was in his office the other day when the door opened and in popped his father, Mitt Romney, dropping off the family dog.

It was a mundane task that highlighted the Michigan native’s change in fortunes: Instead of managing a White House transition or preparing to assume the vice presidency, the man who failed in his bid for the Republican presidential nomination and was passed over by John McCain for running mate is focusing on his family and political interests.

And it may stay that way, through 2012 and beyond.

The surprising ascendancy of McCain’s eventual pick, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, and her popularity among some GOP conservatives have left Romney wondering whether he could wage a viable second campaign for the White House, according to friends and advisers.

The former businessman and one-time Massachusetts governor invested $47 million of his family fortune in this year’s failed race, undercut by those wary of his Mormon religion and skeptics who questioned whether Romney’s conversion to conservatism was genuine. Both points were highlighted by Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and Southern Baptist preacher who beat Romney in the Iowa caucuses and occupied the same political terrain since overtaken by Palin.

“While [Palin] may not be popular with the winning majority that Barack Obama put together, she’s enormously popular with the losing minority that John McCain put together — and that pretty closely mirrors Republican primary voters,” said Rich Bond, former chairman of the Republican National Committee.

Charley Manning, a Massachusetts Republican operative who has worked as a Romney adviser, recently told a local radio interviewer: “I’d be surprised if Mitt ever ran again for president. I sure don’t think it was the best experience of his life.”

In the near term, speculation has focused on whether Romney might help rebuild the party as chairman of the RNC, although other Republicans are jockeying for the job.

A top aide said Romney is focused on where to spend Thanksgiving rather than when to head back to Iowa or New Hampshire. Between now and 2010, Romney has no political plans other than to write about causes that interest him and use his political action committee to raise money for candidates who share his government philosophy.

Romney’s committee recently donated to the recount for Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., and the runoff election involving Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga.

“The campaign’s over and now is not the time to be thinking about the next presidential election,” said Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom. “Governor Romney believes that now is the time for all Americans to stand above partisan politics and help our president-elect address the pressing needs of the nation.”

That generosity is very different from the rhetoric Romney used on the campaign trail, when he said Obama was inexperienced and his policies would damage the economy and risk U.S. stature in the world. Yet it also echoes the change in tone exhibited by Romney after he lost the GOP nomination to McCain — whom he had similarly criticized during their primary campaign.

Romney, 61, raised more than $20 million for McCain’s campaign, lent a top adviser in former eBay CEO Meg Whitman and served as a McCain surrogate at public events and in television appearances. Besides helping McCain, such work showed Romney was a party loyalist, gracious loser and perhaps worthy of being on the GOP ticket, his advisers contend.

One benefit of Romney’s heavy spending this cycle is that he now has the national name recognition that many other potential 2012 GOP candidates lack. Republican Govs. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Haley Barbour of Mississippi, Charlie Crist of Florida and others have to hit the rubber-chicken circuit if they hope to catch up.

Palin has name recognition but has to rehabilitate her public image. In addition, every trip she makes to early voting Iowa and New Hampshire, as well as the prime fundraising cities of Washington and New York, is at least a five-hour flight from her home.

That has left people like former RNC chairman Bond thinking Romney may get a second chance to run for the presidency.

“If I were him, I would be looking at my greatest asset — his national fundraising base — as well as his grass-roots base, his enhanced name identification and the fact that he countered Obama’s ‘spread-the-wealth’ tax policy better than John McCain ever was able to,” said Bond. “He’s got a lot going for him, so why rule him out prematurely?”

(Associated Press)